In Ancient Egypt, the earliest examples of glass were in the form of faience-glazed clay beads that can be dated as far back as the Neolithic era. Later on, a faience was also employed in the manufacture of amulets and ushabti. However, it was not until the Predynastic era that pure glass as a separate material first appeared in the form of translucent beads. By the Middle Kingdom, glass was frequently used to make amulets, mosaic tesserae, and little animal figurines. During the New Kingdom, territorial expansions along the Eastern Mediterranean coast exposed the Egyptians to the advanced glass manufacturing centers of the Levant. It is likely that some of the local craftsmen were brought back to Egypt as slaves where they introduced a variety of revolutionary new techniques including the manufacturing of glass vessels. The pharaoh maintained a monopoly on the production of glass vessels so that only members of his court, top dignitaries, and the high priests would have been able to possess such pieces. This fact is confirmed by the discovery of several 18th Dynasty workshops located within close proximity to royal palaces. In this way, sophisticated glass works were intimately linked to the elite classes of Egyptian society.
By far the most important amulet in Ancient Egypt, the scarab was symbolically as sacred to the Egyptians as the cross is to Christians. Based upon the dung beetle, this sacred creature forms a ball of dung around its semen and rolls it over the sand, creating a larger ball. Eventually, the scarab drops the excrement ball into its burrow where the female lays her eggs on the ground and covers them with the ball. In turn, the larvae consume the ball and emerge in the following days from the ground as if miraculously reborn. In the life cycle of the beetle, the Ancient Egyptians envisioned a microcosm of the daily rebirth of the sun. They imagined the ancient sun god Khepri was a great scarab beetle rolling the sun across the heavens. The scarab also became a symbol of the enduring human soul as well, hence its frequent appearance in funerary art.
Scarabs of various materials form an important class of Egyptian antiquities. Such objects usually have the bottoms inscribed with designs, simultaneously functioning as both amulets and seals. Of all the different types of scarabs, by far the most prized and important as those known as heart scarabs. Towards the end of the mummification process, after all the major organs were removed, amulets were traditionally placed over the body to serve as substitutes for the viscera. Foremost among them was the heart scarab. This imposing amulet would have been placed on the throat of the mummy, on the chest, or over the heart as a substitute. Some were worn by the deceased on a chain or a cord, hung around the neck, or mounted in a gold setting as a pectoral. Clearly, the spiritual importance of such is evident. The heart of the deceased would be reborn in the afterlife just as the Egyptians thought the offspring of the beetle emerged from the ball of dung and just as the sun was reborn each day, dragged across the sky by the great scarab god Khepri.
This gorgeous blue glass heart scarab, dated to the 18th Dynasty, is the only known glass example of this type in existence. More than just the most coveted type of scarab amulet, this piece is also an important example of the evolution of glassmaking. Might this scarab have been created by a master glassmaker from the Levant who was brought into Egypt as a slave? Or could it have been made by a native Egyptian who learned the secrets of glassmaking from such slaves? Overall, the scarab is a potent symbol for the glories of Ancient Egypt as a whole. In our hands, we hold a tangible reminder of the mythology, religion, and funeral rites of this civilization that continue to fascinate mankind even today.